Reconstruction Wars in South

by Wesley Harris
Journal Correspondent


Major Lewis Merrill
Violence appears in Louisiana history from its very beginnings, but the days after the Civil War saw it reach new highs as it took on political and racial overtones. Reconstruction era violence in Louisiana reached its peak in 1874, prompting President Ulysses S. Grant to dispatch more federal troops to the state, especially to Caddo Parish and the rest of northwest Louisiana.

Federal authority in Louisiana's upper Red River valley fell to Major Lewis Merrill. A native of Pennsylvania, Merrill graduated from West Point in 1855. For most of the Civil War, he fought with Union forces in the West, garnering a distinguished war record. He was mustered out of the Army in December 1865 as a Brevet Brigadier General. After serving briefly as acting assistant Inspector General on the Great Plains, he returned to active duty as a major in the famed 7th Calvary. From March 1871 to June 1873 he was stationed in South Carolina, engaging in a zealous campaign against white supremacists. His tenacity earned him high esteem from his commanders.

Once Merrill transferred to Louisiana, he found the situation similar to the one in South Carolina. The White League, a paramilitary white supremacist organization controlled rural areas of the northwest corner of the state. The League terrorized Republican officeholders and freedmen in an attempt to regain pre-war political power for the Democrats.

Caddo Parish in particular was almost completely without law and order after the war. One Louisiana newspaper called it "Bloody Caddo," noting human life was held so cheaply in the parish that scarcely a week passed without news of some horrible new crime. Between war's end and 1876, Louisiana experienced 3,494 homicides. The most violent parish in the state, Caddo accounted for 566 of them. Forty-five percent of Louisiana's homicides occurred in the parishes down the Red River from Caddo to Alexandria. Some regions of the state were relatively free of violence in comparison.

Historians point to a number of factors prompting more violence in northwest Louisiana. In the mind of many Southerners, the war was not over. A fear of losing their sense of identity, a refusal to accept the changes associated with defeat, and the desperate attempt to reclaim pre-war political control led men who could to resist.

The Civil War left Caddo Parish and most of northwest Louisiana largely unscathed. The region avoided most of the terror, bloodshed, and destruction suffered by other parts of the South. It even prospered as it became a significant economic center for the Confederacy as goods and war materiel smuggled through Mexico and Texas came through the city headed east.

Since the region escaped invasion and was occupied only after the surrender of Confederate forces, white citizens did not feel they had been vanquished. Historian Gilles Vandal has noted "as a consequence, the white community in Caddo was periodically dominated by a class of daring, brave and utterly reckless men who stubbornly opposed the federal government and its reconstruction policy." The men also strongly resented the presence of federal troops, especially black regiments.

Merrill described the situation to his superiors in an October 1874 letter: "Upon my arrival here I found that the whole community was on the verge of anarchy. The Kellogg representatives of the civil authority [Republicans who claimed electoral victory] were violently ousted from their offices at the same time that the State government was overthrown in New Orleans. The legal mayor of the town had practically abdicated, and his duties were being discharged by another man. The local police had been disbanded, and its place supplied by a volunteer force, consisting of white citizens, many of whom are no doubt good men, but all are partisan of the so-called white man's party, and a very large proportion are more or less violent members and supporters of the White League."

Merrill claimed most white citizens were following "reckless leaders" who were at best "crazy revolutionsists" intent on bringing down the federally-backed Republican state government many believed had been installed through fraud. The major recounted raids of Republican political meetings by White Leaguers who sent their opponents fleeing at gunpoint.

Shreveport businessmen were forced to sign a pledge not to employ anyone who voted the Radical Republican ticket.

Merrill found no one brave enough to press charges so he personally signed affidavits for arrest warrants for six of Shreveport's most prominent business leaders for violation of the Enforcement Act of 1870, federal law enforcing the first section of the Fifteenth Amendment. It prohibited discrimination in voter registration on the basis of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. It established penalties for interfering with a person's right to vote and gave federal courts the power to enforce the law. The act also authorized troops to uphold its provisions and the use of U.S. marshals to bring charges against offenders for election fraud, the bribery or intimidation of voters, and conspiracies to prevent citizens from exercising their constitutional rights.

Merrill and his troops restored Caddo Republican officeholders who had been ousted by white Democrats. He was so reviled by the local populace in his efforts to enforce his instructions from the president and the U.S. Attorney General that citizens referred to him as "the dog" or "the vulture." In its February 13, 1875 issue, the Shreveport Times remarked on costumed Mardi Gras characters seen in the city, stating "there were numbers willing to represent clowns, hogs, thieves, cutthroats or anyone else but Merrill. No man, white or black, in all Shreveport could be found willing to represent so mean, vile, cowardly, and filthy beast as Dog Merrill, Major and Brevet Brigadier General, United States Army."

Merrill sent troops out with U.S. marshals to round up troublemakers in other northwest Louisiana towns. In October 1874, Lieutenant Benjamin Hodgson and his cavalrymen accompanied Deputy U.S. Marshal Edgar Seleye as he apprehended suspected members of the White League for various offenses against black citizens and Republican officeholders. After arrests in Homer, Seleye and Hodgson descended on Vienna. Seleye arrested James G. Huey, a well-known Vienna citizen and former Jackson Parish sheriff, and galloped for Monroe. Along the way, Hodgson and Seleye decided it prudent to cut the telegraph wires so Monroe could not be alerted of their approach by enraged Vienna citizens.

Eleventh District Judge James Trimble issued a writ of habeas corpus in Vienna for the marshal and troopers to deliver the prisoners to his court and explain their detention. The Lincoln Parish sheriff and a posse rode to Monroe to arrest Hodgson and Seleye for failure to respond to the judge's writ and for the damage to the telegraph wires.

A confrontation was avoided when Hodgson did not resist the return to Vienna. Cavalry and infantry from Shreveport and New Orleans were ordered to Vienna in the belief the federal men might be in danger while lawyers were dispatched to represent them before the court. As important as protecting the men was the need to avoid treading on local judicial authority and risk an uprising among the citizens. The wrong move could cause all-out war. Telegrams flew back and forth between Merrill in Shreveport and Hodgson's attorney and other soldiers in Vienna.

After some delicate negotiations, fines were paid for contempt of court and damage to property and the lieutenant and marshal were released. Despite being considered a Republican man, Trimble was deemed a hero for standing up to the federal government. Huey would serve later as one of Ruston's first police chiefs and some of the other men arrested in Vienna later held political office.

While the Merrill and companies of the 7th Cavalry patrolled the South, its lieutenant colonel, George Custer, languished on the Great Plains. With his sympathies aligned with the Democrat Party, his superiors kept him out of the struggle to wrest political control of the southern states.

Eventually the Republican administration withdrew troops from Louisiana and the attempt at Reconstruction ended. Most of the 7th Cavalry men who served in Louisiana moved to the Dakotas to deal with the Sioux Indians.

The common notion that George Custer and the entire 7th Cavalry Regiment died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 is inaccurate. Custer had divided his forces to attack a large Indian village on the banks of the Little Bighorn River in Montana. Lt. Hodgson was part of the group that broke off and rode down steep bluffs and over the river to charge the village. Custer took another force to engage the Indians from the opposite direction. Indians swarmed both ontingents and the troopers retreated. Lt. Hodgson was cut down by but others managed to escape to the high ground, hold off the Indians, and survive. Custer and the men with him were killed. Major Merrill and others from the 7th were on assignment elsewhere. At the time of the Little Big Horn fight, Merrill was serving as head of the military unit at America's first World Fair, the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.

Later, Merrill held commands in the Dakota Territory, including assignments guarding the construction of railroads. He was again breveted Brigadier General in 1890 and died in 1896.

He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Wesley Harris is a native of Ruston. Among his books are FISH OUT OF WATER: Nazi Submariners as POWs During World War II in North Louisiana and GREETINGS FROM RUSTON: A Post Card History of Ruston, Louisiana, available from amazon.com. He can be contacted at campruston@gmail.com

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